Sitting beneath the lights of a sparkling Eiffel Tower, it’s hard not to surrender to your most romantic impulses. And everyone at Saint Laurent’s show this season at the Fontaine du Trocadéro—with direct sight lines to the ultimate Paris monument—did just that, turning into unabashed tourists raptly taking photos of the sight just as the lights went down. Days earlier, a similar hush had fallen over a room of fashion-jaded insiders when a quintet of supermodels who need only first-name identification—Cindy! Naomi! Claudia! Helena! Carla!—closed the Versace show in Milan with a Grecian goddess–like tableau. It was, to use a well-worn fashionism, a moment.
Over the past few seasons, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the relevance and necessity of the fashion show itself. Should that lavish, elitist, admittedly old-school institution be replaced with the (admittedly more convenient and casual) drop-in presentation? Should designers show on Instagram, or some other social media platform du jour? Is being jacked into a live stream as good as the real thing? This season, a dramatic spate of experiential European shows—including Chanel’s runway-side waterfall and Rick Owens’s outdoor show, during which he soaked the front row with steam—served as a pretty good riposte to such doubts. Supermodels and supermonuments resound on Instagram, but they’re even better live and in person. Think of Paco Rabanne, which turned the city’s Grand Palais into a disco hothouse of slit-to-there dresses, Studio 54–worthy jumpsuits, and metallic fringe. It was inspired, designer Julien Dossena told me, by his friends’ response to the 2015 Paris terror attacks and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Rather than sit at home in fear, they began going out to clubs more and more, embracing being “young people trying to live their lives with as much freedom as they can.” Nightlife pumps through Dossena’s veins: Growing up with a father who owned a club in Brittany, he always saw clubbing as a way to express oneself and celebrate the good things in life. He remembers his dad’s patrons, who loved “dressing up and being seductive. They wanted to forget about their daily lives.” So, too, did his show invitees, at least for a little while—including club-kid friends he invited to pack the space. “Everyone told me they wanted to go out dancing,” he said, “but it was 2 p.m.”
HAIL TO THE NEW CHIEFS
This season brought the anticipated debuts of female designers at two French power maisons. Clare Waight Keller, formerly of Chloé, had Riccardo Tisci–size shoes to fill at Givenchy, and she traded his Goth romanticism for French sportif—from striped shirts for daytime to wispy lace for evening. Her successor at Chloé, Natacha Ramsay-Levi, kicked off her tenure with an airy, feminine collection that included nods to the house’s history, like the equine prints on velvet suits. And she had a beguiling innovation: doubling up bags linked by chunky gold chains.
THE AMERICAN INVASION
Some of the season’s excitement was generated by American designers who traded the Hudson River for the Right Bank. “The show is one of the strongest places that you can tell a story,” said Joseph Altuzarra, who relocated his runway to Paris for the first time to show his fishnet-overlay slipdresses and sequined gowns. He still remembers being a teen in France and unsuccessfully trying to crash a few of Tom Ford’s YSL shows at the Musée Rodin, where Karen Elson and Carmen Kass stalked the runway in bra-baring gowns. After Proenza Schouler and Rodarte decamped for Paris to show during the July couture season, you might think Altuzarra was just following the herd. In fact, “it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while,” he told me. He grew up in Paris and attended a French lycée much like the one where he showed, but the collection went beyond that personal connection. “I didn’t want to feel like this show was going to be a referendum on how French I was,” he said. “Because I am French, and I don’t really feel like I have to prove that I am.” For spring, he looked not to Gallic clichés but to anime classic Princess Mononokeand photographer Charles Fréger’s 2012 book Wilder Mann, which depicted folk-festival costumes around the world. Between the quilting, crochet, and shearling touches, it was the crunchiest the usually staid designer gets.
Thom Browne is known for turning his New York shows into site-specific installations—his Chelsea show spaces have played host to reconstructions of a creepy hospital ward, a Catholic church, and a schoolroom—evoking stern, rules-based environments. So it was a departure when, this season, he showed a sunnier side and brought fantastical beasts to Paris via a gauzy white unicorn costume worn by two models. Browne leaned into weird even more than before. One look—a cocoon that encircled a model’s head—brought to mind a mash-up of Klimt and the quilts of Gee’s Bend. Who wouldn’t want to see that up close?